Neighbors – and a member of city council – clash over latest attempt to revive a Germantown monument


The Germantown YWCA was one of the first racially integrated Ys in the country. It served as an after-school shelter, social service center, and hub for civil rights activists until it closed in the early 2000s.

In the years that followed, the iconic unattended building drew arsonists and vandals and at one point headed for demolition after the city saw it as imminent danger – until what the neighbors are mobilizing to save it and trigger new redevelopment efforts.

Today, after 15 years of delays, three false starts and millions of taxpayer dollars, it has become something else: the latest example of the city’s struggles to preserve historic buildings and support privately owned development companies. Blacks and Browns, as well as the endless debate about the influence that city council members should have over real estate decisions in their neighborhoods.

The dusting started when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority revoked its contract with KBK Enterprises, the Ohio-based, black-owned real estate company it hired in 2016 to restore the building, saying the company couldn’t prove that she could finance the project for almost six years. after winning the redevelopment bid.

The decision led to acrimony in Germantown between supporters of the company, led by board member Cindy Bass, and activists who had grown frustrated with the company’s failure to begin work on the site. The discord culminated last month in a heated public meeting in which activists said they were intimidated and physically intimidated by allies of the council member. Bass denies being involved with those accused of aggressive tactics.

Today, the agency is starting again with a new call for tenders to redevelop the centennial monument in Vernon Park.

The conflict culminated in an informal town hall meeting on December 7 by the Friends for the Restoration of the YWCA Germantown Building. The objective was to obtain the opinion of the inhabitants on the future of the site, following the decision at the end of last year to sever ties with KBK, which had promised to complete the restoration by 2019.

During the meeting, Bass insisted on sitting on stage and standing up for KBK – one of his political supporters – despite the fact that the organizers asked him not to do so. She claimed the Redevelopment Authority discriminated against KBK because it was a black-owned business, blowing the business through hoops for years.

“When I got to the meeting, I was told that I should not speak or sit on the stage. It was almost like I had been uninvited, ”Bass said. She was there, she said, on behalf of “blacks and browns who want to do business around construction in the city of Philadelphia and who have been systematically shut out by the city itself.”

As captured on a video feed available on Facebook, a leader of the group of friends spoke after Bass. At this point, a handful of people – some wearing jackets bearing the name of a neighborhood group, the Leverage Commission – started screaming. Another event organizer, Bernard M. Lambert, got annoyed that they were disrupting the meeting and yelled back.

“I said out loud, ‘Well if you’re here with Cindy you have to go,’ and it was frustration I was using Cindy’s name,” Lambert said in an interview.

The rowdy ones then got up and gathered around Lambert, who said he felt intimidated.

Robert Kirby was one of the men who surrounded Lambert. Kirby had coached a basketball team for years in the church gym where the meeting was being held, he said in an interview, and he was offended that he might be kicked out of the reunion. ‘a place he had long considered his home.

“They can set up their little distractions – ‘I was kidding myself,’ and this and that,” Kirby said. “But when you tell the wrong people, there are going to be circumstances. And yes, he got trampled because he told us to get out.

Kirby is a co-founder of the Leverage Commission, which he says provides services like job training to youth in Northwest Philadelphia. He is also vice president of Imperial Constructors LLC, a construction company where he and at least one other member of the Leverage Commission work.

Kirby said his company would work as a subcontractor on the Germantown Y project – “if invited”. His goal in defending KBK was not to promote a potential partner, he said, but to speak out against discrimination against minority-owned construction companies.

“As far as Imperial is concerned, we haven’t been promised anything. We just happen to be entrepreneurs, ”Kirby said. “But we are the Leverage Commission, and that was an issue on which, as the Leverage Commission, we had to take a stand on this issue.”

Bass said on Tuesday she had not invited the leverage committee to the meeting. But Kirby said that “someone from his office sent us the flyer.”

In a separate incident after the meeting, Lambert said three men who were not wearing the Leverage Commission jackets approached and threatened him.

“They said, ‘We live here, this is our neighborhood, and I suggest that you don’t stand up against Cindy or us anymore,” Lambert said. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t mean the wrong thing. … It was very disturbing.

The group of friends have asked City Comptroller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office to investigate Bass’s role in the controversy, as the Chestnut Hill Local first reported. The controller’s office declined to say whether he had opened a probe in the spat.

The Germantown YWCA is located at 5820 Germantown Ave., two blocks from the Chelten Avenue business district.

Years after its closure, the Germantown Settlement social service agency purchased the site from the city in 2006 with the intention of making it vibrant again. Four years later, the group found itself embroiled in a financial scandal and filed for bankruptcy.

But while the building seemed doomed to demolition, neighbors mobilized to save it.

Under Bass’s leadership, the city spent $ 2.5 million to stabilize and seal the building. The Redevelopment Authority solicited bids for the site, but there was only one candidate: developer Ken Weinstein and the nonprofit Mission First Housing were offering senior housing in low income.

But the deal would require Council approval. Bass, who is used to clashing with Weinstein, was able to torpedo his proposal thanks to the maniacal prerogative of the council, whereby all council members refer such decisions to lawmakers who represent a region. “I don’t like the idea of ​​low-income senior housing in a commercial corridor that we’re working hard to revitalize,” Bass said at the time.

When the Redevelopment Authority again called for tenders, a second candidate emerged: KBK, named after its owner Keith B. Key.

KBK manages real estate operations in Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh. While the Germantown restoration marked his first venture in Philadelphia, his proposal to convert the decrepit building into two dozen apartments with commercial space on the ground floor was a hit in the community.

“I really think this project with KBK Enterprises is (…) the start of a bigger capital investment that we’ll see in this area,” said Emaleigh Doley, Trade Corridor Manager at Germantown United Community Development Corp. , to The Inquirer in 2017..

Ultimately, KBK’s slogan – “We get it” – wouldn’t hold true in Germantown.

The project has dragged on for years and the building remains vacant, attracting tickets for garbage and weeds outside for the past two years, according to city records.

In the years since obtaining the offer, the company has been generous to its main funder at Town Hall. Campaign fundraising records show KBK contributed $ 2,500 to Bass’s political campaign in 2018, followed by a $ 3,000 contribution from Key himself in 2019.

KBK declined to comment for this story.

With a growing sense of abandonment, the neighbors grew impatient over the years and last year asked the Redevelopment Authority to look for a new developer. The authority gave the developer a month to show proof of a plan, but ultimately did not “provide proof of committed funding” to cover the redevelopment, the spokesperson said. from PRA, Jamila Davis.

Weinstein, the developer whose initial bid was torpedoed, said he would be willing to resubmit his application to build senior housing.

“I think the community has shown a desire for this property to be developed so that the scourge does not continue,” Weinstein said.


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